Martin Cloutier’s “Punishment, Inc.” and Worldbuilding in Fiction
It wasn’t that she hated her husband; she just wanted something bad to happen to him.
So begins Martin Cloutier‘s “Punishment, Inc.,” a story published in the Volume 63, Number 1 issue of Shenandoah. The journal makes the story available to you for free. Take advantage! The story is a brief and fun read.
The unnamed focal character given life by the third person limited narrator is quite cross with her ex-boyfriend Daryl, who has taken up with a new woman. The protagonist calls “Punishment Inc.,” a company with the slogan: “We even the score.”
Mr. Cloutier establishes the interesting and funny concept immediately, which brings the reader on board just as quickly. How many of us have ever wanted to get revenge on someone? Let’s put it this way: how many people haven’t wanted to get revenge on someone today? Sure, the concept is not unheard of; who can forget the classic film Dirty Work?
The piece is classified as a short-short story and isn’t very long at all. After reaching the conclusion of the story–which I won’t ruin–I had a thought that is very much a compliment to the author: Should we burn off our coolest conceits by putting them into short shorts? Mr. Cloutier, of course, is free to do whatever he likes and “Punishment, Inc.” is a perfectly enjoyable short story by itself. On the other hand, what if this is a concept that deserves a more extensive treatment?
The solution to this concern, I suppose, is that Mr. Cloutier is welcome to re-use his concept, which relates to the act of world building in fiction. Punishment, Inc. would certainly have many, many clients. What if Mr. Cloutier writes a number of stories about these clients and their victims? The conceit is a simple one and immediately touches upon powerful concepts: we all want revenge and this desire has its root in love. Further, writing about Punishment, Inc. grounds each story in a shared universe such that each influences how we feel about the other. The great Isaac Asimov had the same idea; each of the stories in his classic I, Robot collection takes place in the same shared universe and confronts some of the same issues as others, though in a different way. Could you make up your own cool conceit and use it to populate a shared universe?
Look at the dialogue the protagonist has with the woman from Punishment, Inc. What do you notice? This woman never gets any “stuff” in her dialogue. The narrator says the representative is a “cheerful girl,” and then we get no further description, or even a “she said.” Not that we need more. Mr. Cloutier’s choice to leave “stuff” out of the representative’s dialogue is wise because it puts focus on the all-important conceit and allows our heart to remain with the protagonist, where it belongs. If we learn more about the Punishment, Inc. representative, we may empathize with her, may wonder what she’s about. Mr. Cloutier doesn’t want that. He wants us thinking about the protagonist’s relationship with poor Daryl.
“Punishment, Inc.” is an entertaining and fun story, the kind of work you can share with your family and friends who aren’t writers. (One of my highest compliments.) How can we leverage this kind of work to #MakeMoreReaders? (No, I’m not going to stop trying to make the hashtag happen.)